Trapped in New Orleans by LARRY BRADSHAW and LORRIE BETH SLONSKY

In an earlier post, I gave a summary of a radio program that featured eyewitness reports by two San Francisco paramedics who had been attending a conference and ended up trapped in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. What follows is their extended report in their own words that expands on their radio interview. It is long but I did not want to edit it in any way (except for hyphenating an obscenity) because it is so compelling. (Note: I first received this via an email from a colleague at Case but later also found it on the Counterpunch website here.)
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Why natural disasters don’t affect all equally

There has been one aspect of the hurricane Katrina events and its aftermath that has been bothering me and that is the harsh way that people are being criticized for not leaving the city either in advance of the storm or even after.

In a much earlier post concerning the Terri Schiavo case, I said that I find it almost impossible to judge other people’s actions based on hypothesizing what one would do in if one were in that other person’s situation, if the hypothetical situation is very different from what one has personally experienced. In the Schiavo case, I felt that since I had never had to make a decision about removing life support from someone close to me, I couldn’t really make a judgment about whether Schiavo’s parents or her husband was in the right.
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A radio program that should not be missed

I have not been writing about the devastating effects of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and all along the Gulf coast because I felt that there was little that I could add to everything that was being said. Like most people, I have been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and the fact that we are seeing the evacuation of a major city that may not be inhabitable for months due to the difficulty of drying out a below-sea-level area.

But over the weekend, I listed to this week’s edition of the NPR radio program This American Life and the show was so powerful that I felt compelled to alert readers of this blog that it is one show that must be listened to. Fortunately, you can listen to it online. The program is one hour long but you will be so engrossed that you will not feel the time passing. If any radio program is deserving of an award, this one is.
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Should children be labeled according to religion?

If you ask children what their religion is, they will unhesitatingly answer. They will say that they are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc. and from their answer you can confidently predict that this is the religion of at least one parent, and usually both.

This kind of labeling is not very meaningful. If religious beliefs are to be in any way meaningful, they have to be on the basis of a freely made choice. Compelling sometime to adopt a religion makes a mockery of that religion. But although children are not formally compelled to follow a particular religion, they are usually only taught the tenets of their parents’ religion and are unaware that other religious options are open to them or that they have the option to reject the religion of their parents until they are much older. By then, they have become used to being believers in the family religious tradition, and very few people seek out information about other religions unless they experience deep dissatisfaction with their parents’ one.
But the ideas contained in religions are deep, subtle, and complex, and it is unreasonable to think that young children are in any position to make a choice about what religious structure they find compelling.

So why do we label children according to religion? Richard Dawkins takes a strong stand against this and argues that classifying children as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. is a form of “mental child abuse” because such labels imply a choice of beliefs that only adults are in a position to make. In his essay Is Science a Religion? based on a speech given on the occasion of his accepting the 1996 Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association, he says:

I do feel very strongly about the way children are brought up. I’m not entirely familiar with the way things are in the United States, and what I say may have more relevance to the United Kingdom, where there is state-obliged, legally-enforced religious instruction for all children. That’s unconstitutional in the United States, but I presume that children are nevertheless given religious instruction in whatever particular religion their parents deem suitable.

Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London’s leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question – without even noticing how bizarre it is – that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?

Of course, one obvious counter to Dawkins’ argument is that parents do influence their children in their political, economic, and social thinking, so why should religion be any different? But it is true that we do not assign political or economic labels to children the way we do with religious labels.

One reason that parents bring up their children in their own religious tradition is because they want to teach them moral behavior and most people cannot separate morality from religion. I do find it a little strange when some people say that without religion there can be no morality and that it is only belief in god that prevents people from (say) killing other people. To me it seems obvious that you can have universal moral values that are independent of religion.

Another reason that parents bring up their children in a religious tradition is that because they think that their own religion is the ‘true’ one and see no reason to not teach their children the truth, just like they would teach them that the Earth orbits the Sun.

The so-called Intelligent Design Creationists (IDCs) want students, in the name of ‘fairness,’ to be taught the “controversy” of evolution and intelligent design in science classes so that students can choose which is better. If they are so enamored with the notion of giving students choices and teaching controversy, perhaps they should set an example by encouraging churches and religion classes to also “teach the controversy” by teaching children evolution as well, and also the basic tenets of all religions (and atheism) and letting children choose which belief structure they prefer to follow.

But don’t hold your breath that they will do this. The long-range plan of IDC advocates, as outlined in their Wedge Strategy, is to make Christianity pervasive in all areas of life, not make critical thinkers out of students.

Camp Casey event in Cleveland Heights

Everyone is welcome to come to an event including members of the Camp Casey Team from Crawford, TX: Friday, Sept. 9, 7-8:30, Church of the Saviour, 2537 Lee Road (North of Fairmount and Lee), Cleveland Heights.

There is a parallel program on the West Side Saint Joseph Center, 3430 Rocky River Drive (Rte 237, McKinley exit off I-90) West Park area, Cleveland. (For further information: 216-688-3462 or 216-252-0440×423)
Both events are free and open to the public.

PROGRAM:

Welcome: Rosemary Palmer, mother of Ohio Marine killed in Iraq
Moderator: Mano Singham, Case Western Reserve University

1. Gold Star Families:
A. Bill Mitchell of Atascadero, CA, whose son Sgt. Michael Mitchell was killed in action in Sadr City, Iraq on April 4, 2004, along with Cindy Sheehan’s son Spc. Casey Sheehan. Bill is a founder of Gold Star Families for Peace.

B. Beatriz Saldivar of Fort Worth, TX, whose nephew Daniel Torres was killed in action on February 4th, 2005 in Baygii, 155 miles north of Baghdad, on his 2nd tour of Iraq when an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) exploded and hit his unarmored Humvee. She is available for interviews in English and Spanish.

2. Mylion Waite, Associate Paster, Antioch Baptist Church

3. Mano Singham, Case Western Reserve University, “The Case for Bringing the Troops Home Now”

4. Military Families Speak Out (family members of current US troops in Iraq) participants: Kallisa Stanley of Killeen, TX, whose husband is in the Army and currently stationed at Ft. Hood. He served one year-long tour of duty in Iraq and is scheduled to be redeployed to Iraq next year.

5. Iraq Veterans for Peace participant: Chris Snively

There will then be a Question and Answer interactive discussion with the audience.

Why scientists are good at arguing and bad at debating – 2

In an earlier posting on this topic, I argued that one reason that scientists fare poorly in public political-type debates or on TV talk shows is that the style of argumentation they encounter in those venues is very different from the style they become expert in in their academic discourses. If you are not prepared for this different style, and take steps to counter it, then you can get blind-sided and come off looking poorly. This is why while the scientific case against so-called ‘intelligent design’ (ID) is so strong as to justify the phrase ‘slam dunk’, the popular perception does not match it, because scientists who debate ID proponents often do not realize that they are no longer debating according to the rules of scientific argumentation.
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How far does religious freedom extend?

In a previous posting that dealt with the problems that arise when you allow religious oaths in selecting jurors, I suggested that many of the religion-related frictions that occur in society would go away if the public sphere was made secular, and religion and religious practices stayed in the private sphere.

But while that might take care of some of the irritations that currently consume a lot of time and energy (swearing oaths, prayer in schools, the ten commandments in courts and city halls, locations of nativity scenes at Christmas, etc.) it would not take care of other issues, even in the unlikely event that the country committed itself to such a strict secular-religious demarcation.

In a comment to that previous posting, Erin pointed out that the separation might be hard to maintain when certain religious practices were taken into account since those practices might overlap with the public sphere. For example, she points out that certain religious groups such as Christian Scientists do not believe in taking medicine and would not take their children to a doctor even in the case of life threatening illnesses. And she also raises the issue about other religious groups that practice female genital mutilation. Should a secular state defer to religious sensibilities and stay out of such matters?

In a response to Erin, Paul pointed out that the religious freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights do not extend to actual practices, and that the courts have ruled that the state has an over-riding interest in the welfare of children that enables it to overturn the wishes of the parents if it feels that the life and health and well-being of children are threatened. So parental religious beliefs cannot be extended to cover actions that affect their children if those actions can harm their lives and well-being.

Not being a constitutional lawyer, I am not sure if that is the last word on the legal status currently prevailing in the US. But in some ways that is irrelevant because I am more interested in exploring what might be a reasonable way of reconciling the secular and religious interests in a society, and will leave aside specific questions of constitutionality and legality for others who are more knowledgeable in those areas to determine.

My own view is that people should have the freedom to believe anything they want, to practice their religion, to seek converts, and to gather with like-minded people to worship, provided all these things involve consenting adults who are making voluntary choices to participate. But religious freedom surely cannot be extended to those who would wish to impose their own belief on others or if the practices impinge on the rights of others.

I would also argue that secular laws should not have religious beliefs as their only basis. They must also have a secular justification. For example, you should not be able to pass a law that criminalizes homosexuality or prevents gay marriages just because some religious people find some objection to it in the Bible. Laws that regulate human behavior have to have a clearly articulated secular purpose.

Of course, drawing the lines between what religious practices are allowed and what not is always a tricky issue that requires an extended discussion (and usually litigation), but here I just want to deal with the rights of children. I agree with Paul that the state has a right, and even an obligation, to protect the rights of those in no position to defend their rights and children clearly fall into that category.

So I also agree with Erin and am firmly opposed to the genital mutilation of female children because you are causing irreversible changes on a child’s body without the child being in a position to give informed consent. Once the child becomes an adult, they should be able to make such a decision for themselves.

That same argument should apply to male circumcision as well. This again is something that I believe should be decided by someone after they become an adult, but of course this practice is common and does not cause any outrage. One reason for the two different responses seems to be that male circumcision has been sanctioned by western religious traditions while female genital mutilation has not. And from what I have read female genital mutilation seems to be a very dangerous, painful, and sometimes life-threatening procedure.

But if we are to be consistent on this issue, we should say that parents should not have the right to violate the physical integrity of children and impose irreversible physical changes on their bodies purely on the basis of religion, and that policy should apply equally to male and female children.

Misuse of scientific arguments

When I was in my first or second year of college, a friend of mine who belonged to a fundamentalist Christian church in Sri Lanka said that he had heard of a convincing scientific proof against the theory of evolution. He said the proof centered on the concept of entropy. I had already heard of the term entropy at that time, but I definitely did not understand the concept, since I had not as yet studied thermodynamics in any detail.

Anyway, my friend told me that there was this law of physics that said that the total entropy of a system had to always increase. He also said that the entropy of a system was inversely related to the amount of the order and complexity in the system, so that the greater the order, the lower the entropy. Since I did not have any reason (or desire) to challenge my friend, I accepted those premises.

Then came the killer conclusion. Since it was manifestly clear that the theory of evolution implied increasing order (under the theory, biological systems were becoming more diversified, complex, and organized from their highly disordered primeval soup beginnings) this implied that the entropy of the Earth must be decreasing. This violated the law of increasing entropy. Hence evolution must be false.

It was a pretty good argument, I thought at that time. But in a year or two, as I learned more about entropy, that argument fell apart. The catch is that the law of increasing entropy (also known as the second law of thermodynamics) applies to closed, isolated systems only, i.e., systems that have no interaction with any other system. The only really isolated system we have is the entire universe and the law is believed to apply strictly to it.

For any other system, we have to make sure that it is isolated (at least to a good approximation) before we apply the law to it, and this is where my friend’s argument breaks down. The Earth is definitely not a closed system. It continuously absorbs and radiates energy. It especially gains energy from the Sun and radiates energy into empty space and it is this exchange of energy that is the engine of biological growth.

So nothing can be inferred from the entropy of the Earth alone. You have to consider the entire system of the Sun, the Earth, and the rest of the universe, and you find that this leads to a net increase of the entire closed system. So the second law of thermodynamics is not violated.

You can have decreased entropy in a part of a system provided the entropy increases by more than that amount in another part. As an analogy, consider a sock drawer in which you have black and brown socks randomly mixed together. This is a state of low order and hence high entropy. If I now sort the socks so that all the black socks are on one side of the drawer and all the brown on the other side, then the sock drawer has gone from a lower to a higher state of order, and hence from higher to a lower state of entropy. Is this a violation of the second law? No, because it ignores the fact that I was part of the system. I had to use up energy to sort the socks, and in that process my entropy increased more than the decrease in entropy of the sock drawer, so that there was a net increase in entropy of the combined system (sock drawer + me). Strictly speaking, I was also in contact with the rest of the room since I was absorbing and radiating energy, breathing, etc., so if you wanted to get to an even better approximation to a closed system to be even more accurate, you had to take the entropy of the room into account as well.

This is why physicists believe that after the Sun eventually burns up all its nuclear fuel and ceases to exist, the Earth will inevitably fall into disorder, assuming that we haven’t destroyed the planet ourselves by then. (As an aside, Robert T Pennock in his book Tower of Babel says that some creationists believe that God created the second law, with its increasing disorder, as part of his punishment for Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.)

Once I understood better what entropy was all about, that was the end of the entropy argument against evolution, at least as far as I was concerned. Non-physicist scientists generally caught on to the fact that people were using the entropy argument fraudulently against evolution and were able to debunk it whenever it came up, so that nowadays one rarely hears that argument. One still occasionally comes across the entropy argument used in this fallacious manner, however, and it may still have power over the scientifically naive.

But even if the entropy argument itself has largely disappeared, other ‘scientific proofs’ against evolution and for the existence of god have arisen in the wake of so-called intelligent design (ID) and I will look at those arguments in future postings.

The problem with grades and other summary evaluations

In previous postings (see here and here), I discussed why college rankings vary so much depending on who does the survey. One of the reasons is that different criteria are used to arrive at the rankings, making it difficult to arrive at apples-to-apples comparisons. In this posting, I will discuss why I think that rankings may actually be harmful, even if the measures used to arrive at them are good.

The main problem with rankings is that it requires a single summary score obtained by combining scores from a variety of individual measures, and it seems as if people focus exclusively on that final score and not pay too much attention to the scores on individual measures that went into the summary.

This is a general problem. For example, in course evaluations by students of their teachers, there are usually many questions that ask students to evaluate their teachers on important and specific issues, for example, whether the teacher encourages discussions, is respectful to students, etc.

But there is usually also a question that asks students to give an overall evaluation of the teacher and when such questions exist, those people who usually read the results of the surveys (students, teachers, and department chairs) tend to focus almost exclusively on this summary score and not pay much attention to the other questions. But it is the other questions that provide useful feedback on what kinds of actions need to be taken to improve. For example, a poor score on “encouraging students to discuss” tells a teacher where to look to make improvements. But an overall evaluation of “good” or “poor” for teaching does not tell the teacher anything useful on which to base specific actions.

Teachers face the same problems with course grades. To arrive at a grade for a student, a teacher will make judgments about writing, participation, content knowledge, etc. using a variety of measures. Each of those measures gives useful feedback to the students on their strengths and weaknesses. But as soon as you combine them into a single course grade using a weighted average, then people tend to look only at the grade, even though that really does not tell you anything useful about what a student’s capabilities are. But teachers are required to give grades so we cannot avoid this.

I often hear faculty complain that they give extensive and detailed feedback on students’ written work, only to see students take a quick look at the grade for the paper and then put it away in the their folders. Faculty wonder if students ever read the comments. I too give students a lot of feedback on their writing and have been considering the following idea to try to deal with this issue. Instead of writing the final grade for the paper on the paper itself, I am toying with the idea of omitting that last step and ask the students to estimate the grade that I gave the paper based on their reading of my comments. I am hoping that this will make them examine their own writing more carefully in the light of the feedback they get from others. Then when they have shared with me what grade they think they got and why, I’ll tell them their grade. I am willing to even change it if they make a good case for a change.

I am a little worried that this process seems a little artificial somehow, but perhaps because that is because it is not common practice yet and anything new always feels a little strange. I am going to try it this semester.

Back to college ratings, those can be harmful for another reason and that is that the goals of a school might not mesh with the way that scores are weighted. For example, the US News & World Report rankings take into account incoming students scores on things like the SAT and ACT. But a school that feels that such scores do not measure anything meaningful in terms of student qualities (and a good case can be made for this view) might wish to look at other things it values, like creativity, ingenuity, citizenship, writing, problem solving, etc. Such a school is doomed to sink in the USN&WR rankings, even though it might be able to provide a great college experience for its students.

I am a great believer that getting useful feedback, in whatever area of activity, is an excellent springboard for improving one’s performance and capabilities. In order to do so, one needs criteria, and targeted and valid measures of achievement. But all that useful information can be completely undermined when one takes that last step and combines these various measures in order to get a single score for ranking or overall summary purposes.

The problem with rankings

In a previous post, I spoke about how the college rankings put out by the magazine its Washington Monthly differed considerably from those put out by US News & World Report.

There is a fundamental problem involved in ranking things in some order. In order to do so, it becomes necessary to reduce all the quality measures used to a single number so that they can be compared along a single scale.

This raises three issues that have to be decided. What are the criteria to be used? How can the selected criteria be translated into quantifiable measures? How are the different measures to be weighted in the mix in order to arrive at the final number?

All these questions rarely have unique answers and there is seldom consensus on how to answer any of these questions, and the two college rankings mentioned above are examples of disagreements in answering just the first question alone.

The Washington Monthly said that they felt that, “Universities should be engines of social mobility, they should produce the academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth; and they should inculcate and encourage an ethic of service” and they devised measures accordingly.

US News & World Report mainly looks instead at the resources that universities have and their prestige among their peers. For example, I think that 25% of their final score is based on the “peer assessment score,” which is how people rate the universities. Such a measure is going to guarantee a high ranking for those universities that are already well known and regarded. The ratings also look at the scores of entering students, graduation and retention rates, the size of the endowment, the amount of money the schools have, the amount that alumni give to the schools, etc. All these things are also related to the prestige perception (high scoring students are likely to apply to high prestige institutions, and are more likely to graduate, get well-paying jobs, and earn more money, and so forth.) There is very little that an institution can do in the short term to change any of these things, which is why the USN&WR ratings tend to be quite stable from year to year.

The problem with both sets of ratings is that they do not really measure how well students are taught or how well they learned and grew intellectually, socially, and emotionally. In other words, neither survey tells us how much and what kind of growth the students experience during their school years. To me, that is a really important thing to know about a school.

There is one survey that I think does give useful information about some of these things and that is the NSSE, which stands for National Survey of Student Engagement. This is a research-based study that looks at how much students experience good educational practices during their college years. It does this by surveying students in their first and final years of school. Many schools (including Case) do these surveys in their first and fourth years and they provide each school with important information on their strengths and weaknesses in various areas. The results of the surveys are provided confidentially to schools for internal diagnostic purposes and are not compiled into a single overall school score for ranking purposes.

Should NSSE also produce a single quality score to enable schools to be compared? In a future posting, I will argue why such rankings may actually do more harm than good, even if the measures used to arrive at them are valid.

Swearing oaths on the Koran

Two years ago, I was called for jury duty. I was placed in a pool of about sixty jurors for a homicide case and we had to go through a voir dire process which involves filling in a detailed and lengthy questionnaire that asked all kinds of things that the lawyers and judge could use to see if we had any factors in our background that might cause them to want to disqualify us as jurors. Before filling the forms the judge asked everyone to swear on the Bible that they would tell the truth. But she said that those of us who wanted to could swear a non-religious oath, which I think involved promising to tell the truth on pain of perjury. Only about five of us took this other oath.

This whole thing struck me as odd at that time. If we atheists (I assume that the five of us were atheists although some may have been religious but not Christian) could be trusted to tell the truth by taking a secular oath, why was it necessary to have the Christians take a religious oath? Didn’t this necessarily imply that Christians were somehow less trustworthy than non-Christians, since they had to be made fearful of everlasting hell in order to compel them to tell the truth, whereas the mere threat of secular perjury charges was enough for atheists?

I was reminded of this when I saw the article in the Christian Science Monitor that said that a North Carolina judge had ruled that Muslim jurors could not swear an oath on the Koran. Needless to say, this decision is problematic.

On one hand, if you deny Muslims the right to swear on their own religious book, then you are clearly setting up a hierarchy of religious beliefs, with Christian oaths being ‘better’ than those based on other religions.

On the other hand, if you allow Muslims to swear on the Koran, then you may also have to allow people to swear on the holy icons of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Wiccanism, all the native American religions, and any other religion. Some scholars have advocated just that, with the Monitor article saying “according to law scholars, allowing a range of holy books in oaths of justice may not only lead to a greater feeling of inclusion among religious minorities but also encourage them to tell the truth.”

But where does one draw the line about what is a religion and what is not? What if, for example, devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster demand the same privilege? They have already asked the Kansas School Board for equal time if Intelligent Design is included in their science standards. Deciding which religious oath to allow and which not is likely to generate a massive collective headache.

This is another example of the kind of frustrations that arise when we have religious dogmas vying for inclusion and acceptance in the public sphere. All this could be avoided if everyone was simply required to take the secular oath and be done with it, and we had a secular state where nothing in the public sphere referred to any specific religious beliefs. Then people of all faiths could practice their religion freely in their private sphere without causing friction with each other or with the state.

But this is not likely to happen in the near future because of the political influence of those groups who are determined to make the USA into an explicitly Christian nation and believe that the absence of the Christian god in the public sphere is the cause of all the evils in society. But the more they seek to have religion in the public sphere, the more likely it is that other religions will seek similar accommodations. If they are successful, the net result, paradoxically, might be that Christian symbols get surrounded by those of other religions. Once you allow Christian religious symbolism into the public sphere, I cannot see how you can reject those of other religions, unless the country gives up even the pretence of being a secular state and declares itself to be an explicitly Christian nation, amending the First Amendment in the process.